Pitt fans have been anxious to see Kevin Stallings' new team. But if tonight is any indication of what we've got, it could be a long season.
The Panthers did win their season opener, but needed double overtime to beat Eastern Michigan, winning 93-90. And despite losing two of their best players to fouling out, the Eagles still managed to take it right down to the wire.
Fans were hoping to see the team run more and, well, that happened. The Panthers played a much looser style than we saw under previous head coach Jamie Dixon. But the problem was that they didn't look all that great doing so.
Offensive possessions were clumsy when the team settled into the halfcourt offense and often, there seemed to be no clear purpose. I was astonished that the Panthers seemingly forgot how to play against a zone defense. Under Dixon, the team thrived against Syracuse and their zone ... and that was, of course, against a more talented team. Pitt did a lot of passing the ball around on the perimeter and didn't seem all that interested in trying to attack the zone by getting the ball into the paint.
They had trouble with double teams and while they turned the ball over only 12 times, there were numerous passes deflected. That was a problem because it threw what little offensive rhythm they had out the window.
We made much of the fact that the team returned almost everyone from last year. The lone missing piece was James Robinson at point guard and many (myself included) marginalized that a bit since Robinson wasn't a major offensive threat. The idea was that with Jamel Artis running the point, Pitt had a more dynamic scorer there. That is still true, but I really felt like the team missed Robinson's presence tonight. There was no one really taking command at the point and making sure the offense was run. Essentially, Artis would bring the ball up and the team would simply pass it around on the perimeter. Not enough screens, not enough driving - just pretty flat.
Based on what we saw tonight, I'm curious to see how long the Artis experiment will last.
In that regard, one thing I did notice was that the Panthers had both Artis and backup point guard Justice Kithcart in there together. Some of that was necessitated at the end with Cameron Johnson fouling out, but even before his departure, those two played some together. It will be interesting to see if Stallings lets Kithcart run the point a bit more going forward. To me, that not only could open things up on the offensive end, but it also would get Kithcart some experience going into next year when he presumably starts there.
Back to that bit about missing Robinson. One noticeable problem was Michael Young and his handling of the ball. He had a big game offensively, but had an incredible seven turnovers. I'd have to go back and look at the specific instances, but I almost wonder if some of that was a product of having the ball in his hands too much since Pitt is missing a traditional point guard. As the star of the team, he's always going to have his fair share of time with the ball. But I wonder if the loss of Robinson affected that at all tonight and forced him to handle the ball a little more than he needs to.
Defensively, there were problems, too. That goes beyond the fact of letting Eastern Michigan back into the game after the Panthers had a 12-point lead and letting them hang around in overtime. Pitt really played some poor defense on individual possessions. Near the end of regulation or the first overtime, Artis was completely overmatched by Eastern Michigan's guard and gave up an easy layup to tie the game. You might remember that that was a problem I mentioned specifically in the preview - that Artis could have trouble covering opposing guards. While his size gives him an advantage on offense, on defense, he is a liability in that role.
And on one play, watching Young trying to guard Eastern Michigan's talented big man James Thompson looked like a mismatch. Young isn't short at 6'9", but he was definitely having trouble with Thompson, who is 6'11". That's going to be a recurring theme whenever Pitt plays teams with quality bigs. The Panthers are very long on the court as a whole but a little undersized at center. To be fair, Thompson had only eight points so it's not as if Young had a terrible night against him. But Thompson also outrebounded him, 13-10, despite playing significantly fewer minutes and fouling out near the beginning of the first overtime.
The rebounding as a whole was also a problem and probably isn't going to get much better. The Panthers lost the rebounding battle, 45-41. Keep in mind that not only did Eastern Michigan lose their two 6'11" guys to fouling out, but Pitt will surely face better rebounding teams. If there's one major point of concern, for me, that's probably it.
One more note is that the bench was as light as we thought it probably would be. The four guys that played (Kithcart, Ryan Luther, Damon Wilson, and Jonathan Milligan) contributed only nine points on 3-11 shooting and five rebounds. Pitt doesn't have to be incredibly deep to win games but they better keep the starters healthy since there's just not much behind them.
I don't want this to be an entirely doom and gloom piece. There were some good things. Artis and Young combined for 53 points and showed they are more than a capable one-two scoring punch. The rebounding numbers are a little inflated because of the extra periods, but the frontcourt of Artis, Young, and Jeter had a total of 28 boards. Pitt also closed the game out and got the win when they could have folded and lost, which would have really hurt their resume.
Plus, keep in mind that Pitt shot the ball terribly, making just under 40% of their attempts. They surely won't be this cold all the time and shooting that badly against a zone will almost always make things too close. The offense will play better because they will shoot better.
This team will get better, I'm certain. But there's little doubt that Stallings has much to figure out with this team in order to get them to perform a little better. Definitely glad that the team was able to win, but it was much more difficult than most of us expected.